Why Ageism Never Gets Old

  • 2017-11-21
  • The New Yorker

With the advent of the cloud and off-the-shelf A.P.I.s—the building blocks of sites and apps—all you really need to launch a startup is a bold idea. Silicon Valley believes that bold ideas are the province of the young. Zuckerberg once observed, “Young people are just smarter,” and the venture capitalist Vinod Khosla has said that “people over forty-five basically die in terms of new ideas.” Paul Graham, the co-founder of the Valley’s leading startup accelerator, Y Combinator, declared that the sweet spot is your mid-twenties: “The guys with kids and mortgages are at a real disadvantage.” The median age at tech titans such as Facebook and Google is under thirty; the standard job requirements in the Valley—which discourage a “stale degree” and demand a “digital native” who’s a “culture fit”—sift for youth.

That culture is becoming the culture. At Goldman Sachs—a century-and-a-half-old investment bank that is swiftly turning into a tech company—partners are encouraged to move on after five years or so, or risk being “de-partnered.” As one senior banker says, “There’s always somebody on your six”—military terminology for the guy right behind you. A recent A.A.R.P. study revealed that sixty-four per cent of Americans between forty-five and sixty had seen or experienced age discrimination at work. Accrued eminence still matters at law firms and universities (though tenured positions have fallen fifty per cent in the past forty years), but the rest of the culture has gone topsy-turvy. Even as Lycra and yoga make fifty the new thirty, tech is making thirty the new fifty. Middle age, formerly the highest-status phase of life around the world, has become a precarious crossing. The relatively new tech sector is generating enormous amounts of a very old product: ageism.